It didn’t take long for Thai food to completely take over the American culinary consciousness. In some places, Thai food has even supplanted pizza! Will the universe ever be the same?
Portland is no exception to the Thai food phenomenon. A few short years ago, there was one Thai restaurant for every 13.5 Thai citizens. Just imagine where that number is now. Standing out is difficult in a heavily saturated market.
Fortunately, that’s not a problem Vanna “Van” Sack or his wife Lah has to deal with. Within one year of opening Siri Thai, their restaurant has exceeded expectations, with strong support from the neighborhood.
Opened at the tail end of 2014, the story of Siri Thai hasn’t been all smooth sailing. “We were two weeks from opening and the ceiling came down,” Van deadpans.
As Van describes it, the landlord apparently did not know about a majority of the structural deficiencies, which included electrical, plumbing, structural and maintenance. Even the city was unaware, an all-too-common experience in today’s bureaucratic environment.
“The health department was coming out and checking once or twice a year, but they never reported any problems!” Van exclaims. “So there was no connection between the city and the county,” he finishes.
So, with two weeks to go, suddenly the building was deemed unfit to receive a commercial license. The Sacks were devastated.
“We opened a year late and tens of thousands of dollars later,” says Van. “This was an expense we had not accounted for. We had to throw out a whole bunch of food because we were so close to opening. The décor and everything was ready, and then suddenly we had to pull everything out and do major work.”
Although the story has an unfortunate beginning, perseverance is in Van’s genetic makeup. As a Laotian immigrant who spent time in Thai refugee camps, he’s not used to letting adversity slow him down.
After coming to the United States and jumping around, he and his wife settled in the Portland metro area, where his father worked at OSHU. Upon arriving to the Pacific Northwest, the Sacks immediately began building the dream.
Although Van took a job at the giant Hewlett-Packard campus in Fisher’s Landing, he and Lah also opened a restaurant in Vancouver called Royal Cuisine. Once they made the decision to move the business south, they made preparations to sell off Royal Cuisine, which is now a Vietnamese restaurant.
Although Van is Laotian, he operates a Thai restaurant, but should this be a problem? “Laos and Thai divide from the same root,” he says.
“The Laotians are on the other side of the Mekong River from Thailand,” he explains. “So a lot of the dishes are similar, but they tend to be on the sweeter side, while Laotian food is more spicy and straight to the point.”
Asian food culture has homogenized to a degree where many Asian restaurants, whether it be Chinese, Japanese, or Thai, feature a lot of the foods from other Asian cultures on their menu, and Siri Thai is no exception.
“There’s a lot of Chinese people living in Thailand, has been for centuries and centuries,” Van says. “So you’ll find some Chinese stir-fry dishes on our menu.”
Van points out that he has customers who often request food prepared in a particular Asian style. “We have a lot of Vietnamese, Cambodian and Chinese customers who come in here,” he says. “Some may come in and say ‘I want it Laotian style’ or ‘Thai style,’ and we will cater to them.”
It should be no surprise that Van counts on regulars to have specific requests. The food here is an excellent representation of owners who hail from the source.
The Tom Ka soup with tofu is perfect for the vegetarian lover who doesn’t want to skimp on flavor. The broth is rich and textured and the tofu is expertly cooked, being firm with just enough give. Thai soups are the kind that will wind up dribbling down your chin as you tip your bowl trying to snag the last drop.
Some Thai restaurants rely only on flavor, without keeping presentation in mind. This is not the case at Siri Thai, where how the plate looks is as important as what is on it.
Take the grilled shrimp and scallops, as an example. The seafood is grilled to perfection and delicately placed on the skewers. Fans of bright carrot splash color onto the plate while fresh basil leaves add fragrance and flavor. The sauce has a smoky sweetness that brings out the best in its grilled companions.
These are dishes best pondered over. Take your time to savor the flavor. After all, in a city crowded with the new trendiest option, you’ve found a gem.
Take some time out for Thai at Siri Thai, open from 11:00am to 9:00pm, Monday through Saturday. They are located at 5234 SE Powell Boulevard in Portland, Oregon, 97206. Check out their website for menu information or give them a call at 503.954.2330.
William Bessette – PortlandMetroLive.com Contributor
William Bessette is an author, journalist and blogger who’s been writing professionally for over eleven years. When he isn’t writing or eating, then writing about eating, expect him to be outside enjoying the natural splendors of his home in the great Pacific Northwest.